Museum of Fine Arts, Houston Features John Singer Sargent: The Watercolors

The reputations of artists rise and fall over decades, until finally they're either ensconced in the pantheon of the Greats, or more or less forgotten. Most, of course, are forgotten.

The reputation of American expat artist John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) hasn't just risen and fallen; it has soared and crashed, like the Dow Jones Average. First he was the most brilliant and sought-after portrait painter of his generation; then he was a toady of the super-rich who failed to make the transition to Modernism.

But like the Dow, he's soaring again, now that we can look at him with postmodern eyes. (Or is it post-postmodern at this point? I lose track.) He's even reached that stage in his ascent to artistic Olympus in which they're doing exhibitions focused on just segments of his career. Remember last year's "Picasso in Black and White"? Well, the Sargent focus show we have at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston until May 26 is "John Singer Sargent: The Watercolors."

These particular watercolors are mostly drawn from two collections bought as groups directly from the artist in the early 20th century, shown together for the first time in this exhibition. Sargent was reluctant to sell his watercolors individually, since he painted them mostly for ­himself as relief from the drudgery of portraits, and since he believed that they "only amount to anything when taken as a lot together. United they stand and ­divided they fall."

But in 1909, when the Brooklyn Museum offered to buy his entire New York show, he agreed to sell. He actually wished they could have gone to Boston, however — the city he considered his American home — so in 1912, he and his friends ensured that the Boston Museum of Fine Arts acquired a second group, painted expressly with that outcome in mind.

In Sargent's age the European journeys of Americans were measured in months and years rather than the mere days the lucky among us now eke out. For some, including Sargent, born and raised in Europe, those journeys were measured in lifetimes. Europe, not America, was his world.

But we claim him, along with his fellow artists Mary Cassatt and James Abbott McNeill Whistler and writer Henry James — all Americans who hardly ever came to America — because of the insights they give us as to how our innocence triumphs (or doesn't) over European corruption. And because their work is so brilliant and beautiful.

Sargent wasn't the only American making the European watercolor tour at the time. Childe Hassam and Maurice Prendergast, whose work we saw at MFAH in 2010 in "Prendergast in Italy," and even Texans Percy Holt and E.R. Cherry, among many other Yanks, all made the tour, too, and brought back their own sheaves of watercolors. But Sargent's were the best, and a hundred of his best are in this exhibition.

One criticism of Sargent, when his stock was down, held that his work is all flash and no substance. Certainly there's plenty of flash. No one did that better. But these days we're fond of flash, so no problem there. Thanks to Sargent, at least for a little while, we can all be the elegant dilettantes in crisp white togs, sipping tea on a sun-drenched terrazza with a view. These are paintings of pleasant activity, if not action, even if the activity is nothing more than lying under an umbrella in long grass reading a book on a sunny afternoon at the top of an Alpine mountain pass.

But they're more than tourist glimpses of a peripatetic life. No substance? To my eye there's substance aplenty, though it's substance veiled behind surface, torn between being seen and staying hidden.

The hidden substance I see has to do with the Bedouin's eyes. Seeing them, I think of a line by another American "confirmed bachelor," Walt Whitman, from his poem "City of Orgies": "...your frequent and swift flash of eyes offering me love."

The eyes may not always have known what they were offering; even Whitman and Sargent could be wrong about that. But in those days of Oscar Wilde, when that's what they saw (or thought they saw, or hoped they saw), they knew they had to be stealthy in depicting it — a stealth that honed a skill at presenting and hiding at the same time.

One of Sargent's traveling companions in Venice noted that he was "...only interested in the gondoliers." That wasn't strictly true; at some level he was interested in many things. But that "interest in the gondoliers" shaped a sensibility and a way of depicting that pervade everything. Call it, perhaps, a queer eye for the Belle Époque.

There are other hints included in the show: "Unloading Plaster" with its naked youths; "Poperinghe: Two Soldiers" with its alluring British Tommies; "A Man Seated by a Stream" with its shapely male leg front and center; and "Gondoliers' Siesta" with — you guessed it — gondoliers. I may be wrong, of course, in some art historical sense. But remember, this is my interaction with the art; and when we're in the gallery, what goes on between us and the art is strictly our own business — as long as we don't touch.

But this isn't a show about Sargent's sexuality, which has been addressed elsewhere. Queer or not, Sargent's eye translated what he saw into watercolors that are fabulous. They're also beautifully installed in the special exhibition galleries of the MFAH Beck Building, on richly colored walls of dove-gray or deep blue or maroon. They're grouped together by theme, like with like, as Sargent wanted: In Villa Gardens, Arab Encounter, Mountain Heights and so forth. No slight intended to the curators, but even they admit that it's almost as though Sargent had curated the show himself.

I have one quibble with the installation: Instead of marching in a line around the gallery walls according to modern museum orthodoxy, I'd like to see the paintings hung in a more salon-like style, as they might have been in Sargent's day.

So much for the good news. Now for the bad. Even for all its glories, there's a near fatal flaw in this exhibition: the ticket price. It's unfortunate that modern museum economics require (or is it excuse?) ticketing any exhibition, but in this case it's particularly galling. In fact, the words "crying shame" come to mind.

Though Sargent was right that there's added power in his watercolors hanging together, their subtle elegance begs that each also be savored individually. This show needs to be taken in as lots of little art encounters over many visits as the mood strikes. Otherwise it's like getting a fifth of great whiskey that you have to slug down in a single night. What a hangover. And you're likely to remember about as much the next morning.

But at $23 a visit (somewhat, but not much, less on weekdays or for various categories), how many of us regular folks can afford to go more than once or twice? Not even becoming an MFAH member helps that much, since even the $1,500 level includes only six free visits.

Put me down as an advocate of responsible art consumption. There's got to be a better way than this reckless binge viewing. It would be best, of course, if a sugar daddy or mommy from among Houston's 1 percent made the show free. Barring that, how about an exhibition-long pass at a reasonable price (I'm talking $10s here, not $100s) that lets you drop in as often as you like? Or even — dare I say it? — a free day every week or two? With a billion-dollar endowment, second only to that of New York's Metropolitan Museum among art museums, surely MFAH can afford to let us see the art they bring as it should be seen. Otherwise why bring it at all?

Attention, MFAH: Just having the art doesn't add stars to art museum heavenly crowns. It's having it seen that does that.

That flaw aside, however, and lest anyone reading this think that I always get up on the wrong side of the gallery, I'll say flat-out that this is a brilliant exhibition. And it's particularly fitting that it should be in Houston, since, after New York and Boston, Houston has the third largest concentration of Sargent works in public and private collections anywhere. We got to see many of them at MFAH in 2010 in "Houston's Sargents," mounted in conjunction with the traveling exhibition "Sargent and the Sea." Now we get a selection of the local holdings again as a coda to this show. Not even Brooklyn and Boston had that.

Even though we've seen lots of Sargent already, it's never possible to see too much — unless, of course, we have to gulp him all at once like that fifth of whiskey. Perhaps this is the time to spend less on whiskey on our weekend barhops, so that we can afford to sip Sargent slowly over the next few months.

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Randy Tibbits is an independent art writer and curator, specializing in the art history of Houston. He is a member of the Board of Directors of CASETA: Center for the Advancement and Study of Early Texas Art and the coordinator of HETAG: Houston Earlier Texas Art Group. He writes art exhibition reviews for Houston Press from time to time.